One of the greatest holiday movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” brought more to the world than just an excellent performance by Jimmy Stewart. It introduced Hollywood to a new type of artificial snow.
Shooting a Christmas movie in the middle of 90-degree heat in June and July in 1946 can create some problems for filmmakers trying to turn Bedford Falls into a winter wonderland. Before the Frank Capra classic, fake movie snow was mostly made from crushed cornflakes that were painted white. However, this created problems when actors would step on them, as it would create a loud crunch, forcing dialogue to be re-dubbed. Not to mention the vermin that would find their way to sets to eat the “snow”.
So, Russel Sherman—RKO studio’s head of special effects—and director Frank Capra put their minds together and developed their own type of artificial snow so that the dialogue could be recorded live. By mixing foamite, a material found in fire extinguishers, with sugar, water, and soap flakes, they created an artificial snow that was not only quiet but also sprayable. The mixture was pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to create the look of falling snow.
The ability to produce realistic onscreen snowfall for the first time ever won Russell Sherman a Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy. On the four-acre set of “It’s a Wonderful Life” they used 6,000 gallons of “snow”.
Today, artificial snow is used not only on movie sets, but can be made in your own home. To make instant, non-toxic, artificial snow that is cool to the touch, only takes a couple of ingredients. Using a common polymer (sodium polyacrylate) and water. Sodium polyacrylate is a linear anion polymer with a high molecular weight, that is especially soluble in water. It can be found inside disposable diapers, pharmaceuticals, textiles, agricultural products, packages and even in crystals found in a garden center that are used to keep soil moist, or you can just buy it on Amazon.
Sodium polyacrylate powder is a super absorbent polymer that consists of chains of identical units known as monomers. So, when water is added to the white crystalline polymer, it absorbs several times its size and a polymeric gel forms.
All you need to do to create your instant snow is add water to the sodium polyacrylate. Keep adding more water to achieve the desired amount of wetness. The now-formed gel will not dissolve, but rather create a “slushy” mixture for your snow.
When the sodium polyacrylate is immersed in water there is a higher concentration of water outside the polymer. So as water molecules come in contact with the sodium polyacrylate molecules, the water molecules are absorbed into the center of the sodium polyacrylate by osmosis. The polymer is able to absorb excessive amounts of water due to osmatic pressure.
Thanks to the sodium polyacrylate, the “snow” will feel cool to the touch because it is mainly made of water. To add a little more realism to your new snow, refrigerate or freeze it. The gel substance still will not melt. And if it dries outs—no worries! You can rehydrate it by adding more water.
This fun winter wonderland chemistry project even has the bonus of being non-toxic! However, non-toxic isn’t the same as “good to eat”, so please, don’t eat the fake snow!